Since 2015, an average of six teams that missed the playoffs one year make it the next. Last season, the Steelers, Browns, Colts, Football Team, Buccaneers and Bears were the 2019 non-playoff teams that reached the postseason (granted, they did expand the playoffs to fit in two new teams).
This is the first in a series of stories in which we’ll highlight five 2020 non-playoff teams that we think will make the playoffs in 2021 – along with five 2020 playoff teams that we expect to miss the postseason this year.
Make The Playoffs: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, but they came close last season. Going into Week 17, a win would have clinched a playoff berth. They would lose to Buffalo, 56-26.
Tua Tagovailoa needs to step up in his second season for the Dolphins, after he struggled last season to get the ball down the field (8.22 average depth of throw — below league average of 8.52). The Dolphins worked this offseason toward adding talent around Tua to improve their big-play potential with impressive yards after the catch weapons. The Dolphins added Will Fuller in free agency to pair opposite DeVante Parker and then added Jaylen Waddle and Hunter Long in the draft. In 2020, Fuller was seventh in the NFL in yards per reception (min. 50 targets). Fuller’s issue has been and will always be health, but when healthy last season, he made it easier for Deshaun Watson with 5.1 yards after the catch per reception (28th in the NFL, min. 50 targets), ahead of Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams. Fuller should help Tua make simple throws and rely on talent around him.
Waddle, the sixth overall draft pick, was the best big-play threat in the draft, as he averaged 21.1 yards per reception (17th in CFB and sixth out of 2021 draft-eligible WR/TEs). Waddle was fourth in this draft class in yards after the catch per reception (10.1), which should be a major factor in Tua’s improvement over this season. He also has a familiarity with Tua, as they played together at Alabama in 2018 and 2019 – 66% of Waddle’s college receptions came from Tua.
The Dolphins essentially bring back the same defense from 2020, losing only two players – Kyle Van Noy and Bobby McCain (both released) – who played over 60% snaps. Last season, they had one of the best defenses in the league, as they forced the most turnovers with 29. The Dolphins secondary was amongst the best in the league in 2020, allowing the second-fewest TDs and intercepting the most passes. They lost one key player (McCain) in the secondary but brought in ex-Patriot Jason McCourty and second-round FS Jevon Holland from Oregon. Holland is versatile in his usage and should be a starter from day one at free safety with the ability to play in the slot as well. Holland can cover in man while still being able to be a rangy safety capable and willing to play the run.
Tua will be going into his second season after starting nine games in his rookie season. Quarterbacks that started five or more games as a rookie since 2010 have averaged 8.34 wins per 16 games. Out of the 14 QBs in that data range since 2015, 64.3% have won eight or more games, including five winning 11-plus games.
The Dolphins have the 27th strongest schedule (opponents won only 47.1% of their games in 2020) after having the third-strongest schedule in 2020, a season in which they barely missed the playoffs. With the success that Tua showed in terms of accuracy in 2020, the added weapons, and the continuity along the defense, the Dolphins are primed to get over the barrier they faced last season.
Make the Playoffs: +137
Miss the Playoffs: -167
Miss The Playoffs: Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears became the beneficiary of the new seventh playoff spot in 2020, sneaking into the postseason with an 8-8 record. The Bears won five of their first six games and then lost six straight games. They will have the league’s third-hardest schedule, including road games at Seattle, San Francisco, Tampa and Los Angeles (Rams). Last season, Chicago had an extremely poor offense (22nd in the league in scoring, 26th in total yards), led by Mitch Trubisky, who is now the backup QB in Buffalo. With Trubisky out of town, they brought in free agent Andy Dalton, who is coming off a 4-5 record with the Dallas Cowboys with a career-low 6.5 yards per attempt and under 200 passing yards per game. They also drafted Ohio State QB Justin Fields in the first round. While the Bears QB situation is undecided, former Eagles president Joe Banner suggests that Fields sits to start, learning the offense and not starting until he’s ready.
Assuming the Bears start the season with Dalton under center, they could be in trouble as he had one of the best offenses (in terms of weapons) in Dallas last year, yet had career lows in yards per attempt and yards per completion. The offensive talent around Dalton in Chicago will be a downgrade from Dallas as they have only one player who has ever gone over 1,000 yards in a season — Allen Robinson. Last season, Dalton had two receivers that have gone over 1,000 receiving yards and a rookie WR who finished 65 yards short of the mark. Other than adding a sixth-round pick and a WR who had barely over 600 yards last season for a receiver-starved Patriots team, the Bears made no upgrades in the passing game. Last season, the Bears were 10th-worst in receiving EPA/play (.011, which illustrates a lack of explosiveness) and third-to-last in yards after catch per reception, just behind the Falcons and Giants (who both made major upgrades to their receiving corps this offseason).
After declining RT Bobby Massie’s option and cutting LT Charles Leno Jr., the Bears brought in second-round OT Teven Jenkins to fill the hole. With shifting around the OL, they will need to improve on their ability to create space upfield for the run game after being tied for third-fewest yards before contact in the run game last season as well as the ninth-fewest explosive run plays (9.5% of their explosive rushes game in Week 16 against the Jaguars).
On defense, the Bears released CB1 and the player with the most 2020 defensive snaps, Kyle Fuller (who signed a one-year $9.5M deal with the Broncos). Besides the loss of Fuller and the addition of Desmond Trufant in his place, they will be bringing back their entire starting defense, despite being around middle of the pack in points per game allowed (10th in 2020) and passing TDs allowed (16th). The Bears were able to limit total yardage (11th) in 2020 by being top 10 in the NFL in fewest plays allowed per drive.
The 2021 Chicago Bears are unlikely to start the season 5-1 again, as they will face the Rams, Browns and Packers all within the first six weeks. Facing the third-hardest schedule, Dalton will have to play better than he did in Dallas, and he must do it with fewer weapons. Or Justin Fields will have to buck the trend and be a rookie QB taken outside the top 10 to play successfully from the start of the season. Since 2010, the first-round QBs drafted with the 10th pick or later who have started within the first four weeks as a rookie have been: Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel, Teddy Bridgewater, Deshaun Watson and Josh Rosen. Can the Bears defense once again overcome their possible inefficiencies on offense?
Make the Playoffs: +220
Miss the Playoffs: -278
Odds courtesy DraftKings Sportsbook
Stats: PFF, Pro-Football-Reference